Thursday, December 26, 2019

bright flowers of a thorny plant !


Age and experience are great teachers ! ~ yet, after crossing 50 years also, there are so many things, new and not learnt thus far ! ~ an experience I had this morning, on an errand to the terrace (garden). Even if I were to name some 20 odd flowers like – Lotus, Rose, Jasmine, marigold,  Tulip, lily, Kurinji, Kanakambaram, Mullai, Magizham, vrichi, senkanthal, ambal, anicham, vaagai, vagulam, kongam, bluebell, orchid, hyacinth, hibiscus, daffodil, dandelion .. .. I would not have named this as a flower – though commonly flowers are the reproductive organs of plants !!

The 1,500 to 1,800 species of this - mostly fall into one of two groups : opuntias (subfamily Opuntioideae) and "cactoids" (subfamily Cactoideae). Most members of these two groups are easily recognizable as cacti. They have fleshy succulent stems that are major organs of photosynthesis.  The remaining of them, fall into only two genera, Pereskia and Maihuenia, and are rather different.  

Cacti are prickly, and pleasing. Somewhat ungainly, they flourish in arid conditions where no plant will survive. Succulent inside, their thick coats and nettles ensure predators cannot get to the sap inside, sap the plants literally collect in drops off the moisture in the air. They are economically useful, and their flowers are magnificent !  Cacti require a small space, little water and minimum attention. They are quite extensively cultivated for economic purposes too. Growing in curious and unexpected forms, they  grow in the wild; and  also protected in conservatories and nurseries.

Though it might sound too obvious after gleaning some material on ‘cactus’ – I never knew that they bloom. Yes, those prickly green plants burst out some of the most beautiful flowers which could become  obsession of a photographer.

A cactus (plural cacti, cactuses)  is a member of the plant family Cactaceae, a family comprising about 127 genera with some 1750 known species of the order Caryophyllales. The word "cactus" derives, through Latin, from the Ancient Greek κάκτος, kaktos, a name originally used by Theophrastus for a spiny plant whose identity is not certain.  Cacti occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Most cacti live in habitats subject to at least some drought. Many live in extremely dry environments, even being found in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth. Cacti show many adaptations to conserve water. Almost all cacti are succulents, meaning they have thickened, fleshy parts adapted to store water. Unlike many other succulents, the stem is the only part of most cacti where this vital process takes place. Most species of cacti have lost true leaves, retaining only spines, which are highly modified leaves. As well as defending against herbivores, spines help prevent water loss by reducing air flow close to the cactus and providing some shade. In the absence of leaves, enlarged stems carry out photosynthesis.

Cactus spines are produced from specialized structures called areoles, a kind of highly reduced branch. Areoles are an identifying feature of cacti. As well as spines, areoles give rise to flowers, which are usually tubular and multipetaled. Many cacti have short growing seasons and long dormancies, and are able to react quickly to any rainfall, helped by an extensive but relatively shallow root system that quickly absorbs any water reaching the ground surface.  Many smaller cacti have globe-shaped stems, combining the highest possible volume for water storage, with the lowest possible surface area for water loss from transpiration. Cacti have a variety of uses: many species are used as ornamental plants, others are grown for fodder or forage, and others for food (particularly their fruit). Cochineal is the product of an insect that lives on some cacti.

More searches reveal that their flowers are available for sale on line also.  You can buy fake ones from designers or real ones from good nurseries.   If you want to make a cactus happy, give it sunshine, sand, and – water. In fashion, the cactus has spread with a speed which is inherently uncactus-like. Cacti were plentiful at the Chelsea flower show  and similar shows in Western countries. 

This morning as I went up to the terrace [garden!  maintained by my wife] was surprised to see these flowers – I realized that there are cacti and when asked my wife, the answer – ‘elementary and obvious’ – and don’t display your ignorance !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
26th Dec 2019.

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